In short, Bishop is a bona fide star for a 19-0 Arizona State club, the nation's last remaining unbeaten team. And while his rise to stardom has been dramatic, it certainly hasn't come out of nowhere. He's tantalized with his enormous raw tools since he set foot on campus; it's just taken him a little longer to harness those tools because of his multi-sport background and limited baseball experience in high school.
Bishop said he didn't start playing baseball "seriously" until his sophomore year of high school. His first love was football, and he originally committed to play wide receiver for Washington, where his older brother Braden played baseball from 2013-15. Braden, a third-round pick by the Mariners in 2015 who just earned a trip to Japan for the big league team's season-opener, was supportive of Hunter's football ambitions, but he also encouraged Hunter to give baseball a chance too.
"Braden was instrumental in all parts of my career … He's my hero, he's my role model, and I try to model every part of my game after him. Because he plays the game super hard and works harder than anybody I've ever met," Hunter Bishop said. "I loved baseball in high school, but I didn't really see what everybody else saw in terms of how I played the game, and what I brought to the game, because I still had no idea, honestly. So he was really important in telling me, 'Hunt, you've just got to stick with it, baseball's super hard, keep working at it, keep working hard, and everything else will take care of itself.' I put a lot of trust into him, and it's paying off."
Arizona State coach Tracy Smith has always targeted big, strong-bodied athletes on the recruiting trail, dating back to his days at Indiana, where he famously coached future big leaguers Kyle Schwarber and Sam Travis. The 6-foot-4 Bishop was exactly the kind of projectable talent Smith covets, so it should be no surprise that Bishop's raw tools caught his eye at the Area Code Games, even though he didn't play a lot there. At that time, Bishop was already committed to play football at Washington, but Smith had a relationship with Bishop's father Randy, so he placed a call just in case.
"At the time, my son was going through the football recruiting process, and he had changed his mind a couple different times through that process," Smith said. "I remember picking up the phone one time, because I liked his dad, I said, 'Hey here's the deal, he's going to play football, that's awesome, my son's football, whatever. But here's the thing, I think your son's going to be a really good baseball player, if he ever chooses that. There's some question on the NFL thing, but I guarantee you he's going to be a professional baseball player. If he ever changes his mind, do not be embarrassed to pick up the phone and call me.'
"Something told me to put that call in just to tell him that, like, 'Hey man, don't be embarrassed.' About two or three weeks passed, and all of a sudden I get this call from his dad saying, 'You know, a few other people have said he might be a baseball player, he'd like to go look at Arizona State.' Because it was so late, we didn't have a letter of intent to him through the draft, so we had to actually physically wait until after the draft, and he turned down a lot of money with no letter of intent in hand, and I'll always be grateful to that family for that."
Doing It '4Mom'
Another factor that played into Bishop's decision to turn down pro baseball was the health of his mother, Suzy, who was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's when Hunter was in high school. Smith thinks Hunter was drawn to the idea of going to college and having a safety net to help support him during that ordeal.
Naturally, Suzy's condition helped shape Hunter as a person and a baseball player.
"It made me grow up really, really fast, because the last four or five years I haven't really had a life with a mom. She's still there but it's not who my mom was growing up," Hunter said. "It's been really hard, but my family is super supportive of me and everything I've done in my baseball career and my personal life. So I'm really thankful for the people I have in my life. But as a baseball player, last year was a super hard year for the team and for me, but it just made me realize how small baseball really is in comparison with the bigger picture, with my family and what my mom's going through. So it really put everything in perspective and allowed me to realize baseball's just a game. I obviously love playing it, I love my teammates, but at the end of the day family's the most important thing to me."
Hunter and Braden decided to try to make something positive out of a difficult situation. They started an organization called 4MOM to raise money for Alzheimer's research; Hunter said Braden was the pioneer, using his platform in pro ball to take the lead on the effort, but Hunter plans to get more involved once his pro career gets underway. They worked together to plan a recent 4MOM event at Top Golf in Glendale, which drew a great turnout from pro players and Hunter's Arizona State teammates.
"Obviously it's a really bad situation, but whatever way we can turn it positive is huge for us," Hunter said.
Hunter said Suzy is struggling with the disease but hanging in there. He went home just before this season started to see her, and he said it was "pretty special to see her still smile through it all."
"So it definitely gave me a really good perspective to be able to go home right before the season and reflect on everything that I've been through," he said, "and just say, 'You know what? Go out and have fun this year, because it can be taken away from you in one second.'"
Learning To Stay The Course
That sense of perspective is rare for a college junior, and it has played an integral part in Bishop's maturation as a player. Another key part of Bishop's emergence has been his commitment to a consistent approach at the plate.
Smith said in his first two years, Bishop would tinker with his stance or his swing just about every two weeks - "probably against our wishes," Smith said.
"We got to a point where we said, 'Hey man, we're going to do this, or we're not going to do it at all,'" Smith said. "I just think it's that wanting to do well - here's a guy who hadn't played a ton of baseball. He's a great kid, so probably listening to too many people or trying to please too many people. I think once he finally put the arms up and said, 'OK man, I'm yours,' with our hitting guy Mike Earley, it's been really good. And he's had success doing it, which helps buy-in too."
Bishop agreed that simplifying his approach and sticking with it has been crucial to his success. He said he had a tendency to get jumpy on his back side and fly open his first two years, and he would chase pitches in the dirt, or foul off pitches he should be hitting.
"So the biggest thing me and Coach Earley tried to work on was how can I get myself into a consistent hitting position over my back side? So I start pretty tall now, and I just kind of sink into the back side, instead of doing some big leg kick or something that's too much, or could get me not in that consistent position," Bishop said. "So for me it's just simplifying everything and staying over that back side with a slow and smooth load. The smoother I am, the slower I am, the more I can see the ball, and when I can see the ball, I feel as if I can hit it more consistently and hit it hard."
Bishop said he saw glimpses of his emerging power last summer in the Cape Cod League, where he hit four home runs but hit just .233, striking out 45 times in 120 at-bats. But he really took off when he returned to campus in the fall, and he's been a force of nature ever since. Smith estimated that Bishop has probably hit 30 to 35 home runs since the fall in scrimmages and games, counting the 10 he has already this spring.
"In the fall I really started to see the jump in the home runs, and it kind of surprised me," Bishop said. "I knew I had the power, but it just kind of surprised me how many and how consistently I was hitting them in the fall. I think now I'd attribute a lot to Spencer (Torkelson), they're worried so much about him hitting a home run that I think they're already tired when they get to me, and they just throw it down the middle. So I attribute a lot of my success to him and guys like Carter (Aldrete), they do a great job protecting me in the lineup."
Bishop's dramatically improved plate discipline has also contributed to the power spike. After posting a 33-94 strikeout-walk mark in his first two seasons combined, Bishop has 15 walks and just 11 strikeouts so far this spring. And he's continued to improve as a defender in center field, where his plus speed helps him cover plenty of ground, and his first step has continued to improve. He said the coaches have emphasized over the years that even if you can't make a play on offense, go out and make a big play on defense - and Bishop has taken that to heart. "And I like to think of myself as a pretty good defender now," he said. "I take a lot of pride in it as well."
Bishop's only tool that doesn't project as at least above-average is his arm, which is fringe-average but very playable. But his loudest tool is his raw power, which draws double-plus grades from some scouts. Smith said he sometimes hears scouts question Bishop's long-term track record, but he finds that baffling.
"I think it's just funny, I've been thinking a lot about this, I hear guys talk about it. As always, you try to pick apart what he doesn't do - 'Oh he doesn't have any history, this and that.' I'm sitting here saying, 'I dunno, I've coached some pretty darn good players in my career. This guy's a freak, physically,'" Smith said. "He hits balls as far as anybody I've ever coached, he runs as fast as anybody I've ever coached. So not having history? To me that's a plus. Look at the jumps that he's made, to me it's the tip of the iceberg. There aren't people I've seen out there in college baseball doing what he's doing, not many of them, quite frankly in the last 10 years. His bat speed, it's ridiculous. He's in the same breath as Schwarber and Travis, but faster. I think he has the ability to play center field in the big leagues with that power. That's rare, I think."
Indeed, Bishop is a rare talent, with rare life experience and makeup. And by the time his special season at ASU comes to a close, he might find himself as a first-round pick and a leading contender for the Golden Spikes Award.
Not that Bishop is filling his head with such notions. He's just enjoying the ride with a tightknit group of Sun Devils.
"Our motto this year is 'for us'. How can we make everything for us, just our team, that's it. No one else, no outsiders, just us," he said. "How can we make this year special for this group? I think it's showing, right? Nineteen wins in a row is tough to do in any conference, any games.
"If you would have told me this before the season, I don't know if I would have believed 19-0, but to be honest before the season I knew the group we had was special compared to the years before. So I just think you could see it in the fall from the roster growing up a little bit and taking a more mature approach to the game, and it's really special to see."
Bishop's maturation has been awfully special to see, too.
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